This morning, some frat brothers and I went down to Lutheran Senior City to help usher their Sunday worship service. When we were collecting parishioners from Neighborhood 'G', a ward distinguished by its locked doors and extra surveillance, we encountered some rather addled patients. One would snake out a bony hand and clasp your wrist with an iron grasp, requiring near-dislocation to remove. Another peered at us suspiciously from around corners, following us like an ancient sleuth as we stole through her hall. One old man looked at me out of bleary eyes that nonetheless conveyed a sharp awareness of the present, and spoke up in a surprisingly pleasant, rolling voice:
"Why, hello, Nortis!"
Excuse me, I paused, did he mean me?
"Well, that's your name, isn't it?" His eyes held me like a pair of adamantium vice-grips.
"No, sir, my name is Mark," I enunciated patronizingly.
"This morning you came up to me and said 'Hello, Nortis,' so that must be your name!" he accused, breaking neither stride nor internal logic.
"Is Nortis your name?" I suggested, still thinking that rationality would win the day.
"I don't know. Maybe it is." He seemed disappointed by the thought.
A long pause. This wasn't going at all the way I'd wished. Now he seemed depressed, upset by the thought that the fabled Nortis might be no more than an old man in a wheelchair.
"It's a very good name," I ventured, hoping to raise his flagging spirits.
"Naw, we don't have names," he mumbled tiredly. "We don't need any. Not here. Nobody knows old Nortis, nobody sees him, he's all gone." His gaze fell until it settled on a nearby plant stem and rested there in unfocused silence.
At that point I accepted an excuse to escape the dialogue and grabbed the next chair needing wheeling. As I left, however, I got to thinking about how terribly profound his words were, how terrible and how true, and how my reaction would like have differed had they been delivered by someone other than a patient in a senility ward. I was quite correctly disappointed in myself that I had run away from the pain in his words rather than confront them directly.
Thinking about the great nervousness experienced by many people when visiting "Old Folks' Homes," I wondered at its source. Is it so much the reminders of sickness, weakness, and mortality that are feared, or is it the truth people see in these hollowed out shells of humanity that frighten away the masses? When that old man shot out his skeletal manacle, was he acting on the crazed impulse of a fevered mind, or responding to a perfectly natural terror of the darkness he saw quite clearly encroaching on his life? Did the cateract film on his eyes serve as a kind of milky contact lens, enabling him to see the nature of reality and humanity more clearly by blurring out the distracting details? Allowing him to sense the forest around him by blotting out the trees?
A lesson in life I was long in learning was paying attention to my elders. To be sure, I still don't follow half of what they say, but I now recognize that whatever wisdom they try to impart has resonances with history and memory that my own thoughts cannot begin to match. So I pay heed and consider. What these old fragments of past lives and past loves were saying, as I heard it, was "Yes, be afraid! Be very afraid!" "Death cannot come too quick to ease the pain!" and "Gather ye snowsleds while ye may!"
I left feeling very troubled. While I had always earlier despised old age for the weakness it brought, I had rarely considered the implications of that weakness. Thought about the immense strength it takes me every day to fight off the darkness, and what the loss of that inner strength might mean. Not a loss of vision, of awareness, such as I'd once feared, but a loss of that character and will that allows me to withstand the torrential blasts that constantly lay waste to the human consciousness.
The writer stares with glassy eyes-- Defies the empty page, His beard is white, his face is lined And streaked with tears of rage. Thirty years ago, how the words would flow With passion and precision, But now his mind is dark and dulled By sickness and indecision. And he stares out the kitchen door Where the sun will rise no more... For you--the blind who once could see-- The bell tolls for thee... (Peart)